Thursday, 30 September 2010

Crocodiles and Elephants with a Sense of Humour?

I have been close to big Nile crocodiles in Kenya.  Too close.  At one of the Lodges in Samburu National Park they used to feed them next to the lower terrace, and there was only a very low wall separating them from us while they waited for their food to arrive.  For Africans they are terrifying and dangerous creatures but, being a dumb European, on my first safari, I didn’t know any better and I took my camera within a couple of metres of the nearest.   On later trips to East Africa with Liz, my first wife,  I showed them much more respect because I had heard about how fast they can move when they want to, and how they give no warning of when they’re about to attack.  But crocodiles never go far from water and they never walk through the camps in the night like elephants do.  

On every trip we took to Masai Mara an elephant would stroll quietly through the tented camp in the middle of the night at least once.  It was either from curiosity or because they liked to taste the bushes in the camp we don't know.  We were really scared the first time it happened but later we became accustomed to it.  "Oh it's just an elephant! Go back to sleep."  Elephants are really intelligent and I think that they have a sense of humour too.  One female with her youngster used to walk through Governor’s camp at about lunch time every day.  You can imagine the commotion that caused amongst the tourists!  I am sure that she did it because she enjoyed seeing them scurrying away at high speed, scattering in all directions. 

Eleanor with Daphne Sheldrick

 It’s also true that they never forget.  When we were staying at Richard Bonham’s camp in the Chyulu hills he told us about an occasion when he was with David Sheldrick, who was re-visiting Voi in Tsavo, where he had been the Warden of Tsavo East National Park and had helped his wife Daphne raise orphan elephants.  While they were talking the orphan troop appeared with Eleanor at its head.  Richard and David were standing upwind and Eleanor stopped, raised her trunk in the air and picked up David’s scent.  She charged over to him and wrapped her trunk all round him affectionately.  She had not seen him for thirteen years. 
Daphne set up a charity to support her orphanage and you can read about it here.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I know that crocodiles are also intelligent, they must be to have survived essentially unchanged as a top predator species for about 150 million years since the Jurassic, but apart from their very patient hunting strategies, which I have always thought were hard-wired into their brains, they rarely show it.  They don’t form long lasting pair bonds and are not social animals.  Both males and females take care of their eggs at the nest and carry their young to the water where they disperse, but they do little else.  
A Saltie

When we visited the Kakadu in Northern Territory, Australia for our honeymoon, we were told to be very careful if Salt Water Crocodiles were around.  Salties are the biggest croc species, reaching up to six metres in length and they regularly kill humans, often ignorant unsuspecting tourists.  Our guide on that trip told us not to take water from the same place twice.  He did exactly that on one occasion and on the second visit to the water’s edge, on the following day, a croc lunged out of the water and caught hold of his drinking flask which was hanging round his neck.  He had a narrow escape.
So when I saw this video on the news yesterday about a fisherman in Costa Rica who had “befriended” a crocodile I was amazed and found it a difficult to believe my own eyes.

Two Nile Crocs sharing a joke?

Perhaps crocodiles are more intelligent than I give them credit for, and perhaps they are capable of being trained and tamed, but I very much doubt that one will ever be found with a sense of humour! 
Of course you might ask yourself whether we could ever understand their reptilian jokes or put up with the long patient wait for the punch-line!


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